I should like to recall a remark that Dr. Neil Dawe of the Qualicum Institute made some time ago to the effect that Canada could sustain its present population level of 32 million people --- if, and this was his guess---we consumed at the level we did in the 1950’s. As a child of the 50’s, can I tell you what that level was for the average trade union household in an “affluent” working class Burnaby neighbourhood? Seven people, three small bedrooms, one bathroom, one car. The iceman came once a week with his calipers to fit a block of ice customized for our ice box. I never heard of ice cream until we got our first refrigerator in 1958. That was also the year we acquired our first TV—a small black and white set with rabbit ears that you were constantly adjusting to receive just 4 channels. You could never rely on the reception from one night to the next and it seemed that every ten minutes you had to get up to pound your fists on the console in anger to make the snow and the lines disappear. One TV for the whole house, and like the bathroom, you fought for its possession. There was a radio, which had been the centre of our lives until the TV arrived, and the record player which played scratchy music that seemed quite wonderful at the time. Canadians today would find it amazing that for us, one bath a week sufficed for hygiene. Greasy hair was not a problem because you wanted it greasy—in fact you added Brylcream (“a little dab’ll do ya’”). I shared my bathwater with my two brothers as well as my bedroom. I never had my own bedroom until they were married. We were satisfied with this standard of living because, frankly, we never had it so good. And yet our quality of life, by the terms that I would measure it, was much better than today. We knew all of our neighbours. They waved at us as they drove by, they dropped by with their surplus vegetables, baby-sat, helped my dad with renovations and we never ever locked our doors. In fact, people left their cars at English Bay unlocked with the windows open. Kids were never “street-proofed” or driven to school. Traffic congestion was a joke by contemporary standards. Parks were not over-used. I’m sorry if this sounds like a Leave-it-to-Beaver nostalgic whitewash of an era that is so often depicted as oppressive and conformist. But what I say is essentially true. My bumper sticker summarizes my sentiments: “The 1950’s: Fewer Toys, Fewer Choices, Happier Times”.
But could I go back there? I know what “quality of life” means to me but what does it mean to Canadians under 30? Would they willingly accede to that level of material existence? Richard Wakefield, in his “The Future of the Quality of Life in Canada”, would answer with an emphatic “No!”. Any Canadian government that tried on a “Green Agenda” that would severely slash our consumption levels-- a power-down-- would be quickly tossed out of office like yesterday’s newspaper. It is fashionable to get on the green bandwagon now, but wait until we get down to brass tacks and ask people to give up their toys. They won’t. Except under the duress of a collapse of unprecedented magnitude, which seems inevitable. That’s Richard’s grim assessment.
Mine is that cutting back consumption is actually a tougher nut to crack than reducing population, despite all the roadblocks that are thrown in front of us. Yeah, theoretically if we all lived like Mahatma Ghandhi you could make a case for not beating the drum so loudly about population growth. But the reality is, we won’t. And we are not alone in our attachment to consumerism. Affluenza is a western epidemic. An April 2007 study carried out by the Demoskop polling institute revealed that 60% of people living in the richest nation on earth—Sweden—would not be prepared to lower their standard of living in order to fight global warming.
I think I am on the right track. A moratorium on immigration would not solve all our problems but at least it wouldn’t exacerbate them. If you haven’t read Richard’s essay, read it. It’s at www.mcswiz.com/filepickup/FutureQualityLifeCanada.pdf